Robert Frost: Understanding Another's Perspective
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on,” Robert Frost said near the end of his life (Fitzhenry). Frost’s The Road Not Taken portrays the flip-side of this attitude. In other words, it portrays a narrator who is filled with regret, someone who cannot go on. Frost’s 1962 reading of the poem for the Harvard Advocate captures this sentiment. On the other hand, many other readings of the poem, including a reading by actor David Garrison, invariably taint the soft regret of the narrator with a forced sense of optimism and stereotypical elation about “not following the crowd.”
Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California. From an early age, his personal life was filled with grief and loss. His father died when Robert was 11, leaving his family with very little money. His mother died of cancer when Robert was 26. Robert’s first son died in 1904 at the age of eight from cholera, and his last daughter in 1907 died three days after her birth. He wrote “The Road Not Taken” in 1916, when he was 42 years old (Pritchard).
The poem consists of 4 stanzas, each one five lines long in iambic tetrameter. The lines rhyme in an “abaab” pattern. Because it is one of the most well-known poems, it is also one of the most misunderstood. The poem is commonly interpreted as an encouraging message about the benefits of not following the crowd. This interpretation is tempting, but false. In reality, it describes indecision and the human tendency to find meaning in inconsequential decisions. Before public readings, Frost often stated that the speaker of the poem was based on his friend Edward Thomas, who was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other” (Hollis). Thomas was the embodiment of a person Frost wanted to be different from. Given that Frost was the victim of tragic events in his personal life, his disdain for people who dwell on the past is understandable. Frost has cleverly chosen to entitle his poem “The Road Not Taken” rather than the “The Road Taken.” This implies that the narrator will keep thinking about the path he did not take, not the path that he did take.
In his 1962 reading of the poem for the Harvard Advocate, Frost makes a point of avoiding a hopeful tone. In the first stanza, Frost says “sorry” more loudly than other words. He also draws out the word “long,” emphasizing the tough decision he must make. His pitch slightly increases in the last sentence, as if he is asking a question. By looking “down as far” as he can, he is trying to see his future. In the first stanza and beginning of the second, the narrator initially prefers one road. In the second stanza, he decides to take the other road. In the third sentence, his voice temporarily increases in pitch and volume as he attempts to justify this decision. He says the third sentence quickly and at a higher pitch. He is attempting to cheer himself up, but he does not fully believe that he will ever have a chance to take the alternative path. In the fourth stanza, he says “I will be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence.” He says the word “sigh” relatively loudly because he knows with conviction that he will be regretful, although he cannot pinpoint where or when he will feel that way. In the last line, he draws out the word “all,” enunciating it for longer than he enunciates the other words, in addition to saying it more loudly. It sounds sarcastic. He is making fun of the narrator’s belief that he will be able to see what a difference the choice has made in his life. by the fourth stanza he is regretful once again. The overall argument of Frost’s reading is that the narrator has made a choice in the past over which he has no control. There is no significant difference between the two roads that the narrator can actually discern, yet he fully believes that this choice will be important in the future. Furthermore, he believes that he will regret his choice, telling his story with a “sigh.”
Actor David Garrison’s reading of the poem has a very positive message. In the first stanza, he reads the fifth line very fast and he says the last word at a relatively lower pitch. He seems to really believe that looking “down as far” as he can will help him pick the better path. In the second stanza, the word “same” has a higher pitch than the other words. Again, the actor actually believes that the two roads are the same. Throughout the third stanza, he emphasizes the rhyme scheme and he says the third sentence particularly loudly. He fully believes that he has not lost anything by picking one road and he seems genuinely excited that he can explore the other road later. In the fourth stanza, he states the word “difference” loudly and at a higher pitch. He can already tell that the difference has had a positive benefit to his life. The actor takes the poem at face value and ignores the subtle tones of regret. He reads it cheerfully.
The actor’s narrator is very confident that the road he chose is the best one. For all intents and purposes, the “difference” has already happened. Furthermore, it has been a positive “difference.” Frost’s narrator is unsure that the road he chose is the best one. For all intents and purposes, the “difference” has not yet happened. The “difference” could be positive or negative. For these reasons, there is a temporal gap between the two poems. Frost’s narrator could become the actor’s narrator. In other words, the change could be positive, but it could also be negative. Frost’s narrator thinks that the change will be negative, but the change has not actually happened yet. The poems are not incompatible; the actor’s narrator is just one possible future version of Frost’s narrator. Unlike the actor’s reading, Frost’s reading actually leaves open many possible future paths for the narrator.
Fitzhenry, Robert. The Harper Book of Quotations. Collins Reference, 1993. Print.
Hollis, Matthew. “Now All Roads Lead to France: The Life of Edward Thomas.” Norton & Company, 2012. Print.
Pritchard, William. "Frost's Life and Career--by William H. Pritchard and Stanley Burnshaw."Frost's Life and Career--by William H. Pritchard and Stanley Burnshaw. N.p., n.d. Web.